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GFWC and Suffrage

The General Federation of Women’s Clubs and the Fight for Women’s Suffrage

By Patricia Miller

The year 1914 was a critical moment for the women’s suffrage movement. After more than a decade of languishing, the effort to secure a federal amendment to grant women the vote had sprung back to life the year before when a massive women’s suffrage parade brought 10,000 women to Washington to march down Pennsylvania Avenue to demand the vote.

But the attention the suffrage parade generated would be of little use if it couldn’t be transformed into widespread support for women’s right to vote. Advocates of suffrage had long courted women active in the women’s club movement, which represented millions of middle-class American woman, as key to their effort. When Carrie Chapman Catt succeeded Susan B. Anthony as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1900, one of the first things she did was launch a “society plan” to recruit leaders of women’s clubs to the suffrage cause, knowing that they were an important link to women in their communities.

But votes for women remained controversial. It wasn’t until a number of western states granted women suffrage after 1910, the suffrage parade garnered national attention, and influential socialites like Alva Belmont threw their weight and money behind the cause that a federal amendment for women’s suffrage gained real momentum. Official support of suffrage by the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, which was by far the largest and most vital woman’s organization in the country, representing over one million women, would signal that the suffrage movement had graduated from a once-radical dream to a mainstream cause.

Many important women associated with the GFWC had long been leaders in the suffrage movement, including Frances Willard, the head of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and Julia Ward Howe, the famous author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. But only a majority vote of the representative delegates at the GFWC’s biennial convention would give the movement the legitimacy it desperately needed. As of 1914, only 17 of the GFWC state federations had voted to support suffrage. Pro-suffrage resolutions had been blocked from coming to the floor at the past two conferences by a minority anti-suffrage faction, so the outcome was uncertain as the delegates headed to Chicago for the 1914 convention. The General Federation of Women’s Clubs Magazine presented pro-suffrage and anti-suffrage arguments and the debate was heated.

GFWC President Anna Pennybacker was personally in favor of suffrage, saying that “the highest type of women must be interested in politics and all the vital questions of the day in order to fulfill her mission as a wife and mother.” In Chicago, delegates heard from Carrie Chapman Catt on the “World Progress of Women.” But it was still uncertain if a resolution in favor of suffrage would be presented for a vote. Then, the Illinois delegation took matters into its own hands and passed a resolution in favor of “political equality for men and women.” Pennsylvania, Indiana, New York and Michigan quickly followed. Buoyed by the action, Pennybacker announced that a suffrage resolution would be introduced the next day.

On June 14, 1914, the GFWC approved a resolution stating, “The General Federation of Women’s Clubs give the cause of political equality for men and women its moral support by recording its earnest belief in the principle of political equality regardless of sex.”

The GFWC’s official endorsement of suffrage for women was major news. It affirmed that suffrage had become a mainstream cause for middle-class women from every part of the country. Over the next few years, The General Federation of Women’s Clubs Magazine kept members of the GFWC apprised of activities toward passage of a national suffrage amendment. By 1917, when scores of suffragists, including Alice Paul, were imprisoned at the Occoquan Workhouse in Lorton, Virginia, for picketing the White House to demand the right to vote, the magazine was a vital source of information for American women about the political and legislative strategies behind the fight for suffrage and portraits of women on the font lines of the battle. When the “Iron-Jawed Angels” were released after enduring months of brutalization, maggot-infested food and force-feedings, the public outcry about their treatment made the possibility of a federal suffrage amendment a reality. This turning point for women’s rights culminated in the ratification of the 19th Amendment on August 18, 1920.

Women’s suffrage may not have become a reality without the historic support of the GFWC. Today, women’s club members have an opportunity to help make history once again, by contributing to a national memorial to the heroic suffragists who secured the vote for women. The Turning Point Suffragist Memorial in Lorton on the grounds of the former Occoquan Workhouse will commemorate the women who were imprisoned in a nonviolent revolution which brought about one of the greatest expansions of democracy in history. Many of these women, the inhumane conditions they faced, and their contributions to history have been all but forgotten. GFWC members can ensure that their names, and their contribution to history, are memorialized in time for the centennial anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment in 2020.

About Patricia Miller

Patricia Miller is an award-winning, Washington-based author who writes extensively about women’s history. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Salon, The Nation and Huffington Post. She is currently working on a book about women, sex and shame in the Victorian era.